Browser Wars redux: the fight for the desktop

David Braue
12 March, 2009
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More than a decade ago, a small US startup company, flush with cash from a successful IPO, set up an office in The Tea House, an historical building in South Melbourne that abuts Crown and the Melbourne Exhibition Centre.

That company was, of course, Netscape, which had ridden the world’s newfound enthusiasm for the graphical Web to a multi-billion dollar valuation and a position at the top of the global IT influencers charts. Its founder, wunderkind Marc Andreessen, enjoyed the kind of geek fame that only a successful IPO can bring.

These days, all that has changed. Netscape is a shell of its former self, absorbed years ago into onetime global media empire aspirant AOL. Its technology, once purchased for millions of dollars in site licenses by corporations the world over, is now available free to anybody as the basis of the Mozilla group’s Firefox.

That’s what happens when your key products attract the interest of an industry giant – in Netscape’s case, Microsoft, whose free Internet Explorer (IE) became a worldwide standard and left many customers wondering just what they had been paying Netscape for. For years, IE reigned supreme as Firefox appealed to a small but determinedly anti-Microsoft brigade; Safari was the choice of Mac users; and Opera seemed mainly successful at stealing market share from Firefox.

In those days, your choice of browser was made mostly out of political leanings or pragmatism. Years of missteps by Microsoft, however (read: Vista), left IE vulnerable and competitors have wasted no time in reshaping the marketplace. Firefox is now used by around 1 in 5 Web users, and the mantle for innovation now goes to Google’s recently launched Chrome, which was built from the ground up to optimise delivery of Web applications and speed execution of the JavaScript code that underlies them.

Optimising JavaScript has become a major focal point for all the current browser players. As well as showing off its pretty features through support for the likes of HTML 5, Apple has highlighted the speed of its Safari 4 beta as a key feature – and by all reports it’s not kidding. There are also numerous cosmetic changes, including the addition of Cover Flow-like history and a new tabs scheme that’s not exactly winning fans yet.

For its part, Mozilla is rearchitecting Firefox 3.5 around a new JavaScript engine, called TraceMonkey, that is expected to boost speed significantly whenever it actually ships.

Google engineers are no doubt sitting back and smiling at the firestorm of innovation they’ve created; for years before Chrome’s launch, innovation in browsers was mainly confined to new ways of managing bookmarks and minor tweaks to user interfaces.

A Mac version of Chrome is still a distant fantasy, but consensus from Windows users seems to be that the browser contains some seriously innovative ideas about the way things should work in the Web 2.0 world. And that way, it is clear, will no longer eventuate at Microsoft’s whim (especially with the distraction of an EU anti-competitive action supported by the likes of Mozilla and Opera).

Why all the sudden fuss? The answer, of course, is Web applications, which in about two years have grown from tech meme to game-changing technology. Thanks to a constantly evolving ecosystem of broadband, creative scripting, and commercial backing, online applications have transformed the face of the Web dramatically and irrevocably: productivity software, collaboration software, data backup, file synchronisation and more are everyday features of many of our lives.

The browser is the window to the world of online applications, so it follows that the browser providing the most effective online application experience will gain a strong following – and Google, Apple, and Mozilla are all bent on making sure you choose their platform.

Interestingly, the improvements they’re trumpeting are effectively turning their browsers into the alternative desktop that Linux was once meant to be. Features such as offline functionality (a la Google Gears); anchors for Web apps, which shoehorn Web apps into icons that can be launched with a single click; and even cosmetic changes like Apple’s Cover Flow-esque view in Safari 4, are all designed to blur the boundaries between the Web and the desktop.

It’s important to note that the Mac is not being left behind in this revolution, for once. If these companies have their way, we’ll spend more time in the browser than out of it – but this time around, there is no financial prize like the billions Netscape enjoyed.

The prize at stake is more abstract, yet even more promising: the ability to define the experience of millions of users in Web 2.0 and beyond. The weapon with which it will be won: innovation.

Let the battle begin in earnest.

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